Visitors from around the world are attracted to guided float trips down the Skagit River in winter, a popular way to see bald eagles attracted by the carcasses of spawned-out salmon.
ROCKPORT, Skagit County — The same sturdy rubber raft that had floated through the Grand Canyon and down rivers in Alaska rolled easily down a Skagit River that was surging just a little from recent rains.
At times the raft hugged the shore. Other times it sped down the middle of the fast-moving river and rolled above the choppy riffles that pass as rapids in this tame stretch of the Skagit.
Guide Jon Turnbull knew at just what angle to point the raft to ferry his passengers from one side to the other, to reach a point of interest on the eight miles between Marblemount and Rockport. He knew all the back channels — the one with the beaver dam, and the one with a leaning cedar where chum salmon were massing to spawn on this cold, rainy Tuesday.
As the clouds unloaded on his passengers, Turnbull said he had his own way to distinguish between showers and rain: “If the drops bounce more than two inches, then it’s rain.”
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At one point on the trip, Turnbull didn’t need a ruler to know it was rain.
The rain, or showers, sputtered on and off. Turnbull’s thermometer read 36 degrees. Those on the rafts reminded each other to “think warm thoughts.”
Still, the trip beat another day in the office by a mile.
Sarah McCurdy would have been at her job at a Mount Vernon hotel if she wasn’t on her second-ever Skagit float trip. The first one was much different; it was in August.
“Getting out of work to do something fun like this is great,” McCurdy said after her mid-November trip was over.
Guides know the river
A lot of river experience was behind this trip. Guide Shane Turnbull — Jon’s older brother — operates Chinook Expeditions and claims on his website to have logged more than 100,000 river miles.
The trip’s primary guide was Dave Button of Pacific NW Float Trips. Shane Turnbull said Button was the first commercial rafter in the state, having started in the early 1970s.
That’s when bald-eagle watching from the river took off and made commercial rafting viable year-round. The bald eagles come to the Skagit starting in November to feast on the carcasses of spawned-out salmon.
Button said he gets customers from all across the United States and from foreign countries. When the bald eagles that winter along the Upper Skagit are at their peak — in mid-December to early January — visitors can see hundreds of the birds on this particular stretch.
The guides noted that surprisingly few of the people on their trips are locals.
One passenger on the November trip, retiree Sylvia Mangold, counted 91 bald eagles as the group of four rafts floated downstream. To be more accurate, some of the birds may have been counted twice. Several flew from their perches and headed downstream as the rafts approached. For those birds that chose to stay put, the rafts would stop and the cameras would come out.
Shane Turnbull kept saying the eagles were “skittery” about the rafts at this early point in their winter feeding season. They will eventually become more tolerant of the slow-moving rafts, he said.
Rules of rafting
The guides operate under a permit from the U.S. Forest Service that comes with certain restrictions. Boats may not launch before 11 a.m. between Dec. 26 and Feb. 26, and they may not beach onto gravel bars.
“We feel the guides do a good job of educating about the eagles and watching them, and doing so in a considerate and safe manner,” said Greta Movassaghi, a Forest Service natural resource specialist.
Shane Turnbull has an interest in seeing both the eagles and the salmon that attract them protected. It’s a business interest, to be sure, but it also comes more organically from a lifetime spent along the Skagit between Marblemount and Diablo. Turnbull had his first gig as a river guide when he was 12.
“Every winter we see the rhythms of the fish and the eagle numbers correlated, and we also see the decline of the salmon overall,” Turnbull said.
The eagle has bounced back so that the bird has been taken off the endangered species list. Recent salmon runs up the Skagit have been larger than the years immediately before but still are part of a long-term decline in the population.
“We can’t just sit back and think that it’s good because it’s not,” Turnbull said.